If you've always thought it takes an advanced college degree to understand and appreciate a play, El Centro Su Teatro's charming production of When El Cucui Walks is precisely the play to convince you otherwise. Even though this two-hour-plus drama draws on Mexican myths and is performed in a mix of English and Spanish dialogue, director Debra Gallegos and her appealing cast avoid turning a simple folk tale into a highbrow academic exercise. In fact, under Gallegos's able direction, playwright Roy Conboy's play about folk tales and their relevance to modern society should manage to evoke its share of good-natured laughter from theatergoers.
"It began with a dream," says Papi-Tres (Manuel Roybal) as he tells the story of El Cucui, a mythical character that serves as the Mexican equivalent of The Bogeyman, "keeping us all from misbehaving." A fiercely proud invalid who must rely on his great-granddaughter Camila (Tana Lucero) for food and shelter, Papi clings to his culture's oral storytelling traditions to sustain his spirit. But he can't seem to persuade Camila of their value. After all, the scornful Camila declares, what use are a bunch of stories to a hardworking waitress whose miserable life consists of enduring an abusive boss and taking care of an elderly relative?
Before Papi can answer Camila, she stalks out of their tiny apartment and heads off to work a split shift, tersely telling Papi that he's on his own for the rest of the day. Feeling abandoned in his hour of need, the frail man decides to enlist the help of Cucui (Magally Rizo Antuna), who magically materializes in response to Papi's persistent conjuring. Sporting a painted face and bursting with effusive laughter, Cucui and her companions of the night, the Owl (Sherry Coca-Candelaria) and the Snake (Lorena Gurule), dance in Papi's kitchen. Pleased that Papi is a devout believer in her mystical powers, Cucui restores life to Papi's legs. Enraptured, Papi gives thanks for his miraculous healing by performing a delightful dance to the pulsating sounds of a brassy folk tune.
Camila, however, has her doubts about the whole matter--until her handsome neighbor Brian (Benjamin Toro-Hernandez) begins to visit the apartment. At first he seems to be interested only in Papi and his stories, but eventually Brian tells Camila of his romantic feelings for her. After several scenes in which Camila slowly decides that Brian is her true Prince Charming, the young girl becomes a firm believer in the power of fairy tales. ("Cucui knows when you're talking shit," Papi will later tell her, striking a chord with the audience in the only good use of the play's otherwise gratuitous profanity.)
Lucero is an alluring heroine. Rising above the temptation to wallow in her character's bitterness, the talented actress wisely emphasizes Camila's heartfelt determination to live a better life--a crucial distinction by Lucero that ultimately results in a heartwarming portrayal. Roybal's wonderfully impish geriatric is reminiscent of a similar storyteller who wound up on the wrong end of a rifle barrel in Robert Redford's film The Milagro Beanfield War. In Papi's case, however, the old man lives to tell another tale--and to dance another jig, to the obvious delight of the audience.
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A few technical problems detract from an otherwise enjoyable production: Light cues aren't always as smooth as they should be, and while Yamal Rima's live musical accompaniment often enhances the onstage action, his drum playing sometimes drowns out the performers' words. Minor worries aside, though, Gallegos and company effectively capture the play's ebullient spirit, never failing to speak clearly to us in the universal language of human emotion. Indeed, as one character says, "You can still hear Cucui's laughter echoing on the wind."
When El Cucui Walks, through March 14 at El Centro Su Teatro, 4725 High Street, 296-0219.